Memorial

A memorial for murdered and missing indigenous women and girls provided by the Native Movement is shown.

The 2019 reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act has been introduced in the Senate with a collection of new components set to provide additional assistance to indigenous women who face some of the highest rates of domestic and sexual violence. 

Alaska Native women are 10 times more likely to experience domestic violence compared with other women in the United States. Similarly grim statistics show that while Alaska Natives are only about 20% of the state’s population, Alaska Native women make up 54% of the state’s sexual assault victims. 

These data points are often cited by lawmakers pushing for increased legislation meant to address the issue, including Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, who helped co-sponsor the most recent Senate version of the bill. 

“Women make up roughly half of our state, and the statistics show that more than half of them have experienced sexual assault or domestic violence,” Sullivan said in a statement. “The numbers are likewise horrific across our nation. This important 10-year reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act increases resources for survivors and works to combat the epidemic of murdered and missing Native women in Alaska and across the country.”

Sullivan highlighted a number of provisions in the most recent version of the bill, including the addition of his Choose Respect initiatives, which seek to challenge a cultural acceptance of violence, a lack of legal representation for survivors and the legal loopholes that allow some perpetrators to evade court orders. 

The legislation includes additional funding for grants and programs, particularly focused on sexual violence in rural areas.

The bill also defines sex trafficking as a form of sexual assault to be included in the law, clarifies and increases federal penalties for cases of female genital mutilation and includes two other bills — Savannah’s Act and the SURVIVE Act — also working to address epidemic levels of violence against indigenous women. Sullivan noted that Alaska women will benefit from all of these provisions.

While work continues on the topic, past reauthorizations of the bill have not come without their own set of complications and Alaska tribes have faced a number of issues in gaining as many protections from the act as Lower 48 tribes, an issue that remains unresolved in certain areas

For example, a section in the 2013 reauthorization of the act contained a specific rule that granted tribal jurisdiction over nontribal individuals for crimes committed in Indian Country. However, due to the 1971 passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, Alaska only serves home to one official recognized reservation, the Metlakatla Indian Community. Thus, all but one of Alaska’s 229 federally recognized tribes were left out of the amendment.

After previously supporting what was known as the “Alaska Exemption,” Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill, co-sponsored with then-Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, to extend the act’s Special Domestic Violence Criminal Jurisdiction to all Alaska Native women. Former President Barack Obama signed the bill into law in December 2014.

Since then, the inclusion of Alaska tribes has continued to face obstacles. Without clear borders of where tribal lands begin and end — as with Lower 48 reservations — jurisdiction over crimes committed on Native lands remains complicated and often difficult to see through. However, earlier this year, Alaska Republican Rep. Don Young introduced an amendment for the House’s VAWA reauthorization that would create a pilot program to extend tribal jurisdictional powers over nontribal individuals for up to five Alaska tribes in cases of domestic assault, sexual violence and stalking. The program was meant to be experimental and see how the extension of these powers worked in non-Indian Country tribal lands.

The House approved the amendment and passed its version of the bill in April but it remains unclear whether the program will find its way into the final version. A spokesman for Sullivan confirmed a provision granting Alaska tribes jurisdiction over nontribal members is not included in the Senate version introduced Wednesday. 

Once a Senate version of the bill is passed, the two bodies will debate a compromise piece of legislation. 

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.